Female football players playing out their dreams in Brainerd
BRAINERD, Minn. — A pair of girls playing a sport normally reserved for boys had a chance to meet their Brainerd Warrior role model last week at Adamson Field.
Kylee Soens and Natasha Van Slyke are 10-year-old fifth-grade girls playing in the Brainerd Youth Athletic Association football program this year.
The player they could look up to? Lili Charlier, the first girl to play an entire season for the Warrior varsity football team.
BYAA director Tim Hill and Warrior head coach Ron Stolski arranged the opportunity for the three girls to meet when BYAA teams played their once-a-year games on the artificial turf following the varsity practice.
The excitement and love of football was obvious in Kylee and Natasha as they alternated between playing catch and watching the varsity practice. When they had the chance to meet Charlier afterward, one could see the awe in their eyes.
"I think they're amazing," said Charlier. "I love that they see me as a role model, but I see them as role models for sure. I was never that brave at their age and I really think they're incredible. I can't wait to see them play a game sometime."
Kylee plays wide receiver, quarterback and cornerback for the Red team coached by her father, Nate, and is in her second year of BYAA football. Natasha is in her first year and plays defensive end and offensive line for the Maroon team.
"We encourage all boys and girls to come out," Hill said of the BYAA program. "We've probably averaged one girl a year in BYAA for many years now. This year we have two and these two are phenomenal.
"Kylee's technique is incredible, the way she blocks and catches. Natasha joined a little late, but she has been so much fun to watch, too. When you see these girls hit and make a tackle, they really do an awesome job. As far as I can see, the boys really accept the girls and they respect them."
Hill explained the BYAA program was started 33 years ago by Stolski. Hill became involved in the program in 1992 and 10 years ago, he was asked to become director. The program averages 120 to 150 youths per year with about 130 participating this year.
"We've always had eight teams (for fourth- and fifth-graders) and we found out early on that we had to divide them into four lightweight and four heavyweight teams," Hill said. "We found out this way the lightweights could compete, and they wouldn't show up and see a big kid light them up. The lighter kids love playing each other and it's just healthier.
"Next year for sixth-graders, the formula changes. We have four equal teams, but the heavyweight/lightweight disappears."
The teams usually play Saturday mornings and practice two or three times on weeknights. Although no longer coaching, Hill often officiates games to keep "his finger on the pulse of things," so he's been able to see the girls develop.
"I remember the first play of a game they ran a bomb with Kylee—caught it—gone," Hill said. "She caught two that game for touchdowns. She is really fast. Even going out and blocking as a wide receiver, she's incredible."
Natasha's coach, Beau Oium, praised her as well.
"Natasha is a very determined, energetic player," Oium said. "She's a very good listener and takes instruction very well. Defensively her responsibilities are outside containment as a defensive end and she does that wonderfully. Offensively, she plays on the line and she can block the kids."
Both girls indicated they wanted to continue to play football and were impressed that a girl could actually play for the Warrior varsity.
Charlier, an offensive tackle for the Warriors, moved to Brainerd from the state of Virginia before her junior year when her mother, Hara Charlier, became president of Central Lakes College.
A solid, fit and conditioned player at 270 pounds, Charlier had never played football before, but said it was always something she wanted to do. She approached Stolski and said she wanted to play for the Warriors.
"I invited her to come and try out," Stolski said. "She said, 'This is not a joke coach, I want to play.' I said 'It's not a joke with me either, Lili. You come.'
"She's never missed a practice. She competes with the boys. I'll never forget the first drill we had. She's got a great stance and she's a powerful girl, very fit. The boy across from her just kind of tapped her and she said, 'Hit me. How am I going to learn?'"
For her part, Charlier saw football as a chance to live out a dream.
"I never played before coming here," she said. "I didn't think it would be accepted. (Where I lived) was a very conservative town and honestly I just thought I wouldn't be allowed to.
"Coach Stolski told me he had some girls try out before and they lasted about 30 minutes in a practice and then quit. He thought I had quit the second practice, but I was out running with the guys in the rain.
"I'm still here," she laughed.
Charlier has an infectious laugh, smile and personality that has not only won over the acceptance and respect of her teammates, but the admiration of Stolski, who sees nothing but positives in her being on the team.
"She's never asked for a thing," he said, "always a smile on her face. She asks for no favor and gives no favor. The whole team has accepted her as a teammate. They don't think of Lili as a girl. The only time we think of Lili as a girl is when we travel and say we have a girl and need some accommodations.
"She's a weight-room performer like you cannot believe, a great example. The kids just gravitate to her and it's not like she's asking them to, she just wants to be Lili. And being Lili is exceptional."
In addition to weightlifting, Charlier excelled at throwing discus and shot put for the Warrior girls track and field team. She participated in the state tournament in discus last year and is looking at colleges and universities, where she hopes to continue her throwing career.
She credits playing football with helping her throwing.
"Playing football helps my speed in throwing a lot," Charlier said. "It helps me get across the throwing circle a lot faster because I have to be so quick on my feet all the time."
Last year, Charlier played defense for the Warriors, and this year, was moved to offensive tackle.
"I've mostly been playing JV," she said. "Hopefully by the end of season I'll get in for a couple plays with varsity but it really doesn't matter. I just love playing with the guys and just playing is a good time."